Thinking of Buying a Fast-Casual Franchise? Read this report first.

Gauging Engagement | by Christopher Wolf

The Social Media Wave
If used correctly, social media like Twitter can be an advertising steal.
Christopher Wolf

If there’s one thing foodservice executives can agree on these days, it’s that marketing is not for the faint at heart. Just ask Domino’s, KFC, Subway, Quiznos, Taco Bell, Burger King, or any number of quick-serves that recently found themselves riding—sometimes successfully, sometimes not—the crest of a social-media wave.

The fact is technology-based, consumer-driven social inventions like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are transferring more power to consumers to make or break brand reputations and creating unexpected challenges that keep communications professionals working overtime to navigate.

Despite the long hours, though, social media has its perks. It’s undoubtedly a potentially very powerful means to create one-on-one connections with consumers who build positive buzz and loyalty in ways no traditional media vehicle can.

Anyone who is curious about his competitors’ Twittering can go to twitterholic.com and type in the company’s name. For brands wondering whether they’re missing out, here are some things to consider before hitting the surf.

Attracting a Following

Social-media sites use followers (or friends) as a metric for reach, a practice that makes it possible for any restaurant—or individual such as Ashton Kutcher—to gain a following without shelling out a penny on advertising.

In the traditional media world, for example, McDonald’s buys or generates more impressions than any other restaurant. But @Starbucks rules on Twitter (and on Facebook, too), with 172,366 individual followers of its text messages. The next highest restaurant following is @DunkinDonuts, with 19,543. Both companies have an employee who reads and responds to a constant stream of comments and queries (sometimes complaints), in addition to sending out menu news, promotional offers, and other insider information.

You don’t have to be a big restaurant chain to attract a relatively big following. @ChefTony of Visions Restaurant in Bethesda, Maryland, has 2,766 followers, @Krystalist (Krystal burgers) has 1,639, and @WaffleTruck, a mobile food cart business in Manhattan, has 1,198.

Many Ways To Surf

The good and bad news is that there is no single method or reason to tweet. For example, chains such as McDonald’s, Subway, and Burger King don’t seem to be making a concerted effort to cultivate a big corporate following on Twitter, unlike Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts.

But last fall, McDonald’s started an LTO-style Twitter for its Monopoly promotion, called @MONOPOLYatMcD, which sent out messages to players and winners until the conclusion of the promotion in November. Similarly, Denny’s has a Grand Slam account, with more than 1,000 followers, that is focused on just one aspect of the Denny’s menu and is on a proactive quest to gain followers.

Some companies aren’t afraid to admit they need some help interfacing with the Twitosphere. This past spring, @PizzaHut announced it was accepting applications for a summer Twintern (or Twitter intern) to do the tweeting for them, generating tons of buzz and interest from people who already treat tweeting like a career. But Pizza Hut is being modest: Its first tweet occurred in mid-April, but a quick read of its updates shows it knows how to create buzz with free pizza offers and fast responses to complaints.

Riding the Big Waves

The challenge and opportunity with most social media is that anyone can claim to be someone or something and start attracting followers. No entry barriers and hardly any policing. Therefore, there are hundreds of people out there aligning themselves with big celebrities and corporations.

Anyone who is curious about his competitors’ Twittering can go to twitterholic.com and type in the company’s name.”

Subway doesn’t have a prominent Twitter following of its own, acknowledges Kevin Kane, its public relations representative: “We’re probably behind the times on this.” Thanks to passionate fans of the TV series “Chuck,” however, Subway’s role in saving the ratings-deprived spy series from cancellation was among the most Twittered news this past spring. The chain became part of a consumer-led @SaveChuck campaign that encouraged people to buy foot-long sandwiches just before the season finale dubbed “Chuck vs. the Footlong Finale.”

Burger King’s rep Lauren Kuzniar confirmed that BK does not have an official Twitter account. Nonetheless, BK is another company that seems to know how to ride out waves it didn’t start. @theBKlounge on Twitter has an impressive 2,705 followers, despite that it hasn’t posted an update since March and was started by a college student named Caleb Kramer, who admits he originally started the account as an experiment in “brandjacking.”

But rather than attempt to shut down this renegade Twitterer who was posing as the company’s King, Kramer says Burger King sent an invite and a plane ticket to the opening of the Whopper Bar in Orlando. Caleb told me he was treated like a member of the press [bitter note: I, on the other hand, was not sent an invitation to the opening], and learned that BK was not bothered by the Twitter persona because he was not “bashing on the company.” Unfortunately @theBKlounge has been dormant since March because of a failed succession plan, but Caleb assures me it “is not the end for @theBKlounge.”

As director of strategic innovation for The Turover Straus Group, Christopher Wolf serves a wide range of manufacturing and retail-based clients seeking strategic and culinary innovations for consumers and the food industry.